Politics & Policy

Why Libya Could See Civil War

I refer you to two articles, one from Slate, and one from the New York Times, both of which highlight the anarchy that could ensue once Gaddafi is out. Essentially, Gaddafi has spent his career promoting tribal factionalism among different sectors of the Libyan military in order to prevent an organized and unified military coup against him (i.e. to prevent others from doing to him what he did to gain power in 1969).

From Kareen Fahim: 

 

But amid spreading rebellion and growing defections by top officials, diplomats and segments of the regular army, Colonel Qaddafi’s preparations for a defense of Tripoli also reframed the question of who might still be enforcing his rule. It is a puzzle that military analysts say reflects the singular character of the society he has shaped — half tribal, half police state — for the past 41 years.

“It is all shadow and mirrors and probably a great deal of corruption as well,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor at Georgetown who has studied the Libyan military.

Colonel Qaddafi, who took power in a military coup, has always kept the Libyan military too weak and divided to do the same thing to him. About half its relatively small 50,000-member army is made up of poorly trained and unreliable conscripts, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Many of its battalions are organized along tribal lines, ensuring their loyalty to their own clan rather than to top military commanders — a pattern evident in the defection of portions of the army to help protesters take the eastern city of Benghazi.

Colonel Qaddafi’s own clan dominates the air force and the upper level of army officers, and they are believed to have remained loyal to him, in part because his clan has the most to lose from his ouster.

Other clans, like the large Warfalla tribe, have complained that they have been shut out of the top ranks, Professor Sullivan noted, which may help explain why they were among the first to turn on Colonel Qaddafi.

Untrusting of his officers, Colonel Qaddafi built up an elaborate paramilitary force — accompanied by special segments of the regular army that report primarily to his family. It is designed to check the army and in part to subdue his own population. At the top of that structure is his roughly 3,000-member revolutionary guard corps, which mainly guards him personally.

Then there are the militia units controlled by Colonel Qaddafi’s seven sons. A cable from the United States Embassy in Libya released by WikiLeaks described his son Khamis’s private battalion as the best equipped in the Libyan Army.

His brother Sa’ad has reportedly used his private battalion to help him secure business deals. And a third brother, Muatassim, is Colonel Qaddafi’s national security adviser. In 2008 he asked for $2.8 billion to pay for a battalion of his own, to keep up with his brothers.

But perhaps the most significant force that Colonel Qaddafi has deployed against the current insurrection is one believed to consist of about 2,500 mercenaries from countries like Chad, Sudan and Niger that he calls his Islamic Pan African Brigade.

And from Daniel Byman:

 

The very factors that make Egypt look so promising make Libya look more frightening. Qaddafi, unfortunately, may still win, either by rallying his loyalists in the security forces and military or by importing enough mercenaries to overcome the disorganized opposition in a brutal city-by-city campaign of terror. Some reports put the death toll in Libya at more than 1,000—and, remember, Libya’s population is less than one-tenth the size of Egypt’s—and the violence shows no sign of subsiding.

But if Qaddafi loses, Libya’s future may still prove chaotic. It would be hard to have a worse ruler than Qaddafi, but that doesn’t mean Libya’s next leader will be just or that the country can avoid additional strife. Libyans, unlike Egypt’s citizens, do not have thousands of years of national identity to keep them together—tribal ties remain important and inhibit a strong national identity. Key cities like Benghazi and Tripoli are far apart with different historical experiences.

Nor is there any coherence to the opposition. Different tribes, military units, and former regime loyalists have all declared themselves “for the people,” but no one truly speaks for the ordinary Libyans who are risking their lives to end the tyranny they have known for more than 40 years. For now, they are unified in fighting Qaddafi, but whether they can coordinate their activities to prevail, and whether they can keep coordinating should he go, is an open question.

Unlike in Egypt, “the army” is not a coherent institution. Qaddafi took care to politicize the military and divide its commanders in order to prevent a coup or other challenges to his rule. Moreover, the army was involved in interventions, such as a disastrous war in Chad, that tarnished its credibility—its battlefield record is not a source of pride. So the military is less able to lead the country out of the mess.

Nor is there a bureaucratic structure that can simply resume basic government functions under new leaders. Qaddafi created one of the world’s most bizarre governments, with “people’s committees” playing important roles at the local level. Indeed, Qaddafi himself did not hold a government position in any formal sense, even though he was clearly recognized as “the leader.” This personalized and politicized system is part of what Libyans hate; it should not survive its creator. But removing Qaddafi’s regime demands more than just change at the top.

Civil wars also further radicalize all involved. When blood is shed, the rules change. The Libyan regime is already committing many atrocities, such as firing on crowds and sending its loyalists into hospitals to kill wounded demonstrators. The opposition, in turn, will not be gentle with captured security forces, mercenaries, or others deemed culpable in killing their comrades. Purges are likely no matter who wins.

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